New Zealand's public health system became the centre of attention during the Covid-19 outbreak. The current government says the system's shortcomings are down to long-term underinvestment. Despite many health services being free, outcomes differ greatly between communities and a recent review said the system needs to be simplified and focus more on population health.
Some think of healthcare as being free in New Zealand, and it is, at least compared to countries like the US. But users do pay a contribution to doctor's fees and prescriptions, for example, while specialist treatment isn’t always free. Services vary greatly across the country and some are only available in main centres.
New Zealand’s suicide rate is among the highest in the world, especially among young people. While nearly half of New Zealanders will experience mental illness or distress at some point in their lives, many go without services or treatment. An inquiry into mental health and addiction set up by the current government produced a long list of recommendations, including to increase publicly funded mental health services.
Alcohol and drugs
In 2018, the current government legalised medicinal cannabis. But New Zealand may be about to go a step further, with the country asked to vote this election on a referendum to legalise and control the recreational use of cannabis. But while the focus for now is on cannabis, alcohol remains a major cause of harm.
Covid-19 health response
Community transmission, contact tracing and flattening the curve — Covid-19 made the language of epidemiology a part of everyday life. As a second outbreak unfolds, the country's capacity to respond is one of the defining issues of the election.
Health funding and workforce
New Zealand's 20 elected district health boards are responsible for delivery of most health services. A recent review recommended halving the number of DHBs and replacing elected members with government appointees, creating a new entity to oversee operational delivery of services, and a greater focus on population health.
Covid-19 has raised consciousness about the importance of strong public health systems, and several parties are proposing changes to beef up New Zealand's public health agencies. But while the pandemic rages on, other lingering health challenges remain, from smoking to obesity.